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Submitted by Kevin Wuzzardo on Thu, 04/19/2007 - 8:54am.
I do not envy NBC News President Steve Capus. It's been a difficult couple of weeks for him. First he made the difficult, perhaps incorrect and now seemingly less important decision to cancel Don Imus's show on MSNBC. But his real challenge came yesterday, when NBC received a package from Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui. Capus had to make the call about what to do with the 23-page written statement, 28 video clips and 43 photos Cho sent Monday morning after killing two people in a Virginia Tech dorm and before heading to a classroom building on campus to kill 30 more people.
What we have seen in the half day since NBC began airing some of Cho's so-called multimedia manifesto is deeply disturbing. On video, Cho rants profanely about debauchery and people of privilege driving him to the massacre and ending his life in a way he didn't want. I can't imagine what it must have been like inside 30 Rock when Capus and the other head honchos at NBC News met to figure out how to handle it.
An alert postal carrier who noticed the Blacksburg return address on the envelope tipped off NBC security in New York as he delivered it. On MSNBC's Hardball last night, Capus said NBC security called law enforcement once they realized what they had. Then, he said, the security team opened the envelope, revealing its chilling contents. Capus went on to say that NBC worked with law enforcement agents on how to handle the manifesto. So far the network has not released what it says are the most profanity-laden of Cho's tirades and other parts that are described as incoherent. Capus also says the Peacock has honored investigators' requests to withhold certain parts of it.
What makes the decision so difficult is that there is certainly newsworthiness to what Cho sent. But there are other considerations. Seeing and hearing the images and words helps, in some way, at least begin to explain Cho's mental state and what drove him to such extreme measures. But at what point is that search for the truth counterbalanced by a sense of decency and respect for the victims and even for the general public? I will tell you I was bothered by some of Cho's photos, especially the ones where he points guns at the camera. I couldn't help but think of the terror the victims experienced as they faced the armed Cho in person. I couldn't help realizing a similar image was likely the last thing some of them saw before they died.
In the days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the news networks and their affiliates decided to stop airing video of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center and of the towers crumbling to the ground. The consensus was that the constant replays were creating additional trauma for some people and perhaps even desensitizing some of us to what happened. Eventually the video became OK to play again as part of the historical record that was more easily digested with the passage of time. Perhaps the same should be done with Cho's manifesto. We've seen all the parts of it we're likely to see for now. Perhaps, for now, that's enough.
I do believe Capus and NBC made the right decision to air the material and release it to other media outlets. There is no doubt of the newsworthiness of the materials. And the network did a good job warning viewers of the disturbing nature of what was about to air. As a journalist, I think we in the media have a responsibility to share such information to uncover the truth about something like what happened Monday at Virginia Tech. We cannot censor ourselves just because some people will be upset. After all, it is the responsibility of every adult to decide what is appropriate for them to see and for every parent to protect their children.
As with the 9/11 video, I do think we reach a point where continuing to air the elements of Cho's manifesto becomes little more than salacious fodder. I'm not sure when we will reach that point in this case, but it is coming quickly. Perhaps it is in the next few days as many of the victims are likely to be buried and we need to show a certain collective level of respect for them. Whenever it arrives, we must leave Cho and his rants and his demons in the archives. We can always go back to them later when they start to be a little less painful, when we have a better context in which to view them and when they will provide a better context of the next inevitable horror.
By: Kevin Wuzzardo